To those who may think I have become indispensable to The Post -- have I got a surprise for you. This is the first of my "farewell" columns.
In a recent talk at the Smithsonian, Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield said there are two items under her jurisdiction which she considers inviolate and untouchable -- this column and the masthead. The masthead is that box right below this column, which contains the names of all the top brass of the company -- the men and women who determine what you will read in The Post, the kind of ink to be used, how the paper gets delivered, how much you will pay for it and what kind of advertising is acceptable.
The names in the box seldom change, which suggests stability. The author of this column should resent it because many a sage observation has been sacrificed to their egos -- as I write this column, I keep my eye on the box, and when I'm about to bump into it, I know it won't give an inch, so I simply stop writing. This imposes on me a discipline faced by no other writer for this newspaper -- a worship of the economy of words. Every Sunday, 700 words, no more, no less, because that box below is sacred turf and cannot be encroached upon. If I ever write a book about my experience here, the title will be: "Two Years Before the Masthead."
But rather than resenting that box, I am grateful. I wish only that it could be used as a club to enforce a similar control over the flow of words elsewhere in this paper. Short of that, there must be in the pharmaceutical inventory a journalistic miracle pill to cure diarrhea of the typewriter. Or perhaps a magic editorial wand to stem the flow of gibberish that fills too much of The Post. It is as though there were a chronic anxiety gripping editors and reporters, a constant, nagging fear that there would not be enough copy every day to fill the news hole -- you should forgive the expression -- confronting them when the advertising department advises how much space they have to fill. ("News hole" is the accepted term for space alloted to news and editorial matter.)
The Post, particularly on Sundays, requires a forklift to bring it into the house; stories on Sundays shouldn't be measured in inches, but in miles, for too many of them are long and wearisome. Few readers plow through them. The infamous quote of Jesse Jackson about the "Hymies" in New York was about 30 paragraphs into a political roundup story, and nobody noticed it except a Post editorial writer who was catching up on his political reading after a spell out covering the campaign. And that was five days later. As a result, The Post carried an editorial comment on the statement and only then did it hit the fan.
Yet, it can sometimes be an exciting and rewarding experience to read Post stories right through to the very end, even though you need an oxygen tank and flippers to make it. Earlier this week, The Post assigned a special correspondent in Lumberton, N.C., to cover the seizure of the local daily newspaper by two Indian gunmen. His report, in The Post tradition, ran on. This was the last sentence: "Melissa Talbert, a reporter who was out on assignment when the gunmen came through the front door, told the Associated Press that the paper's managing editor, Donna Pipes, was released in exchange for 15 hamburgers; Pipes had no comment."
I may well have been the only one in the newsroom to have read through the entire story, and it created a minor sensation when I alerted the staff to the final sentence. Post Managing Editor Len Downie, had his comment been solicited, surely would not have declined. One wonders whether Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Meg Greenfield are even at this very moment speculating what they might command on the open hostage market.
Be that as it may, the crusade to end the era of interminable stories in The Post must go on. Shorter stories, and more of them, is the battle cry. Whoa -- I see that damn box rushing up at me. Note the names there. They can order shorter stories. Don't call me; call them.